Wednesday, March 02, 2005


July 4, 1983, comes in cool. A real surprise for Nebraska. Jo wants to go for a drive out in the country, so we ride and talk, looking at the ripening wheat on the gentle hills north of Lincoln. After a while, we end up at a reservoir, Branched Oak. I spot a beach and my fingers start to itch. Photos are one thing, sand another. Both Jo and Mary want to see the real arch. We sneak into the place so I can sample the local sand. Despite some pebbles, it looks good.

A few weeks later, Jo and I pile with Mary into her Mustang and head for the beach. I have some tools: a spoon, a stick. The technique developed in Santa Monica works well here, except the sand releases its water more slowly so the pile, instead of giving me problems by drying out gives me problems by slumping. Instead of the old breakneck pace, I have to slow down, let each layer settle, then continue piling. No problem.

The problem was the beach's slope. There I was merrily carving my slowly built pile, getting that classic catenary shape, and then the whole thing falls over. Downhill. Concentration will do that; the arch looked straight to me as I sat cross-legged on the beach, right arm on the low side.

We come back, to try again. It being fall, there are few people around and we have the beach to ourselves. Brown water beats in little waves against this miniature beach, and the water ends a half-mile away instead of wrapping a third of the way around the world, but it's still a beach made of sand that makes hard-packed piles. This time I build my pile across the beach so everything will be level. Sun washes through the humid air, and a warm wind rattles the cottonwood leaves overhead.

There's a finished pile. Prepared to make another arch, I reach out to start digging but my hand is stayed. What am I doing? Making an arch, of course. Doesn't that seem a little familiar?

Sculpture is what you find in art museums or special gardens. The constructions I made of wood or plaster or clay didn't qualify, although I had an aesthetic I tried to follow. I just do things, I don't think about them.

I've already done arches. Playing in the sand is usually fun, but I'm bored. What's wrong with me? I just can't look forward to making another arch. Something sparks in my mind and my normal processes go away. Intensely I go at this pile of sand, cutting holes here, curving this surface. When I'm done there's something almost architectural, like a hotel for the 22nd century. A long gallery runs its length between sloped ends. Cross passages whose openings resemble the spoon of their carving pass through the short axis. It is unlike anything I've done before, and I'm flooded with a strange pleasure. This is new. It is little, clumsy, not anything like what I want to make. Want to make? What's going on? I look at this little thing and see... I see promise.

The inspiration is enough to make me improve my equipment. To combat the slumping problem, the next time we go to Branched Oak I take some boards with me. Tying the boards together makes a crude form, like the forms concrete is cast into. I pile my wet sand into this form, building it up without worrying about it collapsing. The sand leaks out through joints, but it holds up and the resulting pile is nearly three feet tall, to which I add another foot by free-piling some sand on top. After a dip in the lake, to cool myself from the construction, I remove the form and find a pile that feels like concrete. My puny tools are nearly inadequate for handling this level of compaction. The structure stands tall, with lots of interesting holes, short on design but long on challenge. And, responding to friends' browbeating, I take some photos of it.

A week later, we're at it again. Jo has dropped out from boredom, but Mary and I are having a wonderful time. It's getting cold, though; this will be the year's last chance.

Late September, leaves turning yellow, a little nip to the wind, days getting short. I've been thinking about what I want to make in the sand today, and I set up the form with this idea in mind. At the day's end, a long ridge rises gradually out of the sand, reaches a cusp, dives under an arch, rises on the other side, curving around to become the arch and continuing to curve, then fading once again into the beach. The curves are polished, smoothed into the landscape, and the structure has a finished look. It looks as if it belongs here. It resonates, ringing my soul like a bell. It raises questions I can't answer. It is almost frightening.

We hang around for a little while, taking some pictures. Somewhat stunned, I pack my stuff. We bid our good-bye to the beach, go home, put the tools away.

Next: "Development"


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